It’s about time. Although the Panama Canal has undergone occasional improvements since it first opened in 1914, it has never benefited from an actual expansion. That will now change, following the vote of Panamanians last October to build an entirely new set of locks that will allow extra-large ships to cross their narrow isthmus.
Anybody who looks at a map of the world can appreciate the rationale for the Panama Canal: Ships that use it save an 8,000-mile trip around the southern tip of South America.
I recently returned from a trip to Panama. As a farmer who depends upon rivers and locks in our own country, I know that the Panama Canal is a vital passage. Seeing it in person, however, gave me a newfound appreciation for it as both a marvel of engineering and an economic asset.
With the possible exception of the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal is the most important manmade waterway on the planet. Four percent of all world trade passes through it. That may not sound like much, but consider what it means to the United States: 11 percent of all our trade relies upon the canal, including 40 percent of all the cargo that travels between Asia and the East Coast.
The canal is constantly busy: About 14,000 ships move through it each year. In the morning, they go from the Pacific to the Atlantic (via the Caribbean). In the afternoon, they switch direction. Overnight, smaller boats go both ways at once.
More than two-thirds of the ships that use the canal trade with the United States. The second-largest beneficiary is China, which accounts for 19 percent of the traffic.
Unfortunately, there’s almost no room for growth. In two years, the Panama Canal will hit its capacity of about 15,000 ships per year. Without more locks, ships will start to backup like cars during rush hour.
The canal’s expansion will relieve this congestion. It will take $5.5 billion and seven years to complete.
The third set of locks won’t merely add another lane, as if it were a highway construction project. Instead, it will represent a massive increase in the canal’s capacity.
Right now, the largest ship that can use the canal is 106’ wide and 960’ long. A ship with these dimensions is known as a Panamax ship because it is designed specifically to move through the Panama Canal’s locks with almost no space to spare. A Panamax ship can hold about 4,000 containers that are 20’ in length.
Today, however, it’s possible to build much larger oceangoing vessels, known as Post Panamax ships. They’re too big for the current canal. The new locks, however, will be able to accommodate ships that are 160’ wide and 1200’ long. Even more impressive, Post Panamax ships can carry about 12,000 containers.
This will make oceanic shipping much more efficient. Transportation costs will drop. That’s good for everybody, everywhere.
Just a few years ago, skeptics worried about a bleak future for the Panama Canal, following its transfer of ownership from the United States to Panama. I remember a visit to Brazil in the late 1990s. Business leaders said they would much prefer for the canal to remain in American hands. The issue has popped up in U.S. politics as well.
Fortunately, fears of Panamanian control were overblown: The canal is extremely well run. Panama understands the value of what it owns, plus the value of improving it.
The canal’s growth will help ordinary Americans, even if we sit back and do nothing. But we should do something: Congress can approve the Panama Free Trade Agreement, which will boost the economies of two countries. A healthy Panama means a larger Panama Canal, and a larger Panama Canal means a healthier–and bigger–American and world economy.
It’s just good business.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and biotechnology.